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Dmitry Babayev talks about his secrets of making an excellent Jaw Harp

It is the artistic approach that currently makes the jaw harps of Dmitry Babayev the most excellent and conspicuous instruments in the Russian-speaking world. Furthermore, the jaw harps leave his workshop in an immaculate state. In 2016, Dmitry won the jaw harp making competition. He sees his success in a serene manner connected with firm convictions. We spoke with him about the aesthetic side of making jaw harps and his personal access to those instruments.

How did you get involved with making Jew’s harps? Has this something to do with your profession, or a family tradition? Do you have a musical background?

Once I just started to play a harp, I loved to sit and look far ahead. And I decided to change that. I decided to make my own harp, one that is louder and more powerful. After I finished the first one I found it was good enough, so I made one more. And somehow the ball started to roll.
Initially, I had no musical background, but later on I got musical education.

How does a cautious instrument with a fragile sound like the Jew’s harp fit into today’s world? I saw some pictures you published on the internet connected to your harps. They convey a vintage atmosphere of old machines, nature, associations of loneliness and peace, immersed in a world that has nothing to do with the fast digital lanes of work and communication many people are running on every day.

I represent the world with my instruments. I don’t think that the world with a lot of people running around is real. I think this world is just a moment, a particular reality. The jaw harp is an ancient instrument. I think that the history of the modern world is shorter than the history of the jaw harp. I feel that the jaw harp reflects reality much better. Despite that it is fragile, this instrument had a strong appearance in human history. It has had such an impact, that even now we cannot see its full influence on the world and the music.

Are you following any metaphysical aspects in the conception of Jew’s harps? After all the Jew’s harp has often been described as an instrument, that is able to communicate between this world and another world (whatever we think of, when we say another world).

I don’t see any mystic aspect in the conception of mouth harps; and it´s not my objective. Some people perceive as something strange or metaphysical what is just natural for me. In fact, jaw harps strike a connection between this and another world. But for me that other world is a world of culture (not in a traditional sense of culture). In that world the jaw harp was made. I’m skeptical about esotericism.

What inspires you to shape the unique forms and designs of your Jew’s harps?

Nature and the legacy of the ancient world, which by now are inseparable.

How would you describe your aesthetic approach? I see so many beautiful pictures and settings with the Jew’s harps on your internet platform – it appears to me like a whole artistic concept.

For me, to some extent harps are pictures. I make my instruments as though they are not just handcrafted products. I relate to harps as I’m an artist. Nowadays jaw harps for me are like a focus (in the optical meaning) of the vision of beauty; like I’m a mirror for the world around me.

Can you tell us a little bit about your idea of the perfect Jew’s harp sound? I realized that your instru-ments have a very solid, sonorous, and buzzing sound. Very rich, actually. If you can tell us, what is the secret mixture of elements in the constructions of your Jew’s harps, so that the sound turns out to be really good?

Regarding ideal sound: I absolutely avoid thinking about the ideal sound. At the moment I’d conclude I achieved gaining the ideal sound, I’d stop making harps.
Secondly, understanding the essence of the instrument is the secret of a good sound. But there are two key aspects, if we are talking about material things. One is the skill to work with metal and the other is the skill to apply the right geometry.

Could you tell me about your perception of the Jew’s harp in Russia? Which status does the instrument have in Russia? Can you observe a development of a community and if so, how would you describe it?

I´m not interested in this question very much. I only can say that there are a lot of different folks and cultures in Russia that have known harps since ancient times. Attitudes and perceptions of a jaw harp in these cultures are absolutely different. Therefore the status of a jaw harp is different. It is hard to compare the Khomus from Yakutia and the Russian jaw harp. I only can say that the Russian jaw harp has been forgotten until recently. Now, thanks to many people (I cannot fail to mention Vladimir Markov) this instrument is having a comeback. Some images of archeological findings were published and some masters now make copies. Many try to re-establish the old Russian style of playing and understanding how it sounded. This is something unique to the Russian jaw harp as opposed to a modern jaw harp culture, where people just play the way they want. But I don’t know much about that.

Where do you see the potential of the Jew’s harp (looking at the next years to come)? One could think that it is very brave and maybe risky to dedicate one’s work and life to making Jew’s harps only.

This instrument gains popularity among people. Moreover, the Russian jaw harp still isn’t very well known. It was forgotten and not remembered for some time. This struck a gap in Russian musical culture and it’s the reason why I think it has potential. At least, more and more people are interested in jaw harps.
I personally think that it is risky to work for people you absolutely don’t know. I’ve had this experience in my life and I didn’t like it. I can’t say I only make harps. I also make knifes, axes, and I want to study design. I´m interested in many things, which are not associated with the production of harps.

This interview was made possible with the translation help of Daria Chernega.